Why Do Military Leaders Dominate the Civil War Classroom?

Leave it to a thoughtful student to point out aspects of our Civil War memory that often go unacknowledged. I have no idea why this video was done, but in it Christian Patterson, who is a student in a Texas private school briefly touches on what he remembers learning about the American Civil War.

Toward the end he notes the bias in the way the war is taught compared to other wars. The salient difference for Patterson is that military leaders in other wars involving the United States are not emphasized nearly as much as figures such as Lee, Jackson, Grant and others.

Why do military leaders dominate our pre-college history classrooms?

[Uploaded to Vimeo on April 22, 2104]

20 thoughts on “Why Do Military Leaders Dominate the Civil War Classroom?

  1. James F. Epperson

    I can think of two reasons:

    1. Of the political leadership, Lincoln has been canonized beyond rational discussion in many ways, and Davis is … Davis. So the political leadership simply isn’t attractive.

    2. We have always romanticized the Civil War, and I think this has led to an emphasis on the military leadership. Besides, it is a colorful group of eccentrics, in many ways. There is something for everyone.

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  2. Ben Allen

    “Why do military leaders dominate our pre-college history classrooms?” Probably because it gets predominantly male students interested. Battles, or more simply acts of violence, are pleasurably exciting, particularly for boys and young men teeming with testosterone. Indeed, it is perhaps a dirty secret for many military historians that war is a somewhat guilty pleasure, entailing a sort of internal conflict best expressed by Winston Churchill. The same can be said for those males, usually the young men, who are aware of its horrors and have seen powerful war movies. Also, war comes with the bawdy aspects of human society (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, and sex in general) in which adolescents, frequently regardless of gender, find enjoyment. Military leaders, their conduct, and their acclaim represent to many male students what they, seriously or not, want to be and do, or wish they could have been and done: commanders of armies, leading them to victory and glory or glorious defeat.

    I wonder if this emphasis on military leaders is the result of a society that is still recovering from having been dominated by men for so long as well as Lost Cause historiography.

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  3. Bryce Hartranft

    Before common core, when I focused on the minutia of history, I would bring up the names of leaders and how their decisions or personalities affected the war. The American Revolution had George Washington, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold & Ethan Allen. George Dewey and Teddy Roosevelt were important in the Spanish American War. WW1 had “Black Jack” Pershing while WW2 had Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur (MacArthur doubles in Korea also). Even the modern wars like Vietnam (Westmoreland) and Persian Gulf (Shwarzkopf) had notable names.

    Common Core’s emphasis on reading and writing, however, has led to focusing on the larger issues so that I rarely discuss these names anymore, but that is true for the Civil War as well. So we might mention Grant and Sherman, but they are just examples in understanding the civil war’s effects (massive death and total war). Lincoln’s name comes up the most during the unit because he is involved in the causes, emancipation, expansion of federal government and failure of reconstruction.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Great to hear, but I suspect you are one of the very few. I admit that I don’t nearly delve into military leaders to the extent that I do with the Civil War. It’s not even that I don’t know anything about them.

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  4. Daniel Sauerwein

    Kevin,

    Interesting question. Part of it is, I believe, the popularity of military history among the general public. There is a “sexiness” about war and the generals who fight them. Since the war remains our nation’s bloodiest conflict, it continues to have a major place in our historical consciousness. Further, given the nature of the conflict, the military leaders are going to figure more prominently in our memory, alongside Lincoln and Davis, as the political leaders, as the generals actions influenced the course of the war quite a bit. I think it is also important to recall how some folks in certain areas view Lee along the same lines as George Washington, which is further going to influence which personalities they gravitate towards. I also think there is something to the later careers of the generals who survived causing this heavy focus, as look how many future presidents, post-war military leaders, and other prominent roles that several high-ranking officers filled after the war. I also believe that the influence of the GAR in post-war America could also play a role, as they influenced much of post-war America, both politically and socially. In closing, I also think there is something to be said about the curiosity we have for generals in that war, as they were all Americans, instead of Americans vs. a foreign army, which is not to say that both sides did not regard each other as “foreign” in certain circumstances. Again, I love this question, as it is certainly a thought provoking one that forces us to consider our historical memory of the conflict in a deeper way.

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  5. Tom Heaney

    If I may be so bold as to jump in here, I’d suggest that 1) That isn’t true for JUST the Civil War since the Revolutionary War is often “all about generals” (as is the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War), and 2) the influence of technology and total war in the 20th century. While I can say empirically whether more emphasis is actually placed on individual generals in the CW compared to other wars, I do see a big emphasis on individual generals in the American wars leading up to the CW (heck, didn’t Andrew Jackson with the whole War of 1812 by himself?).

    This is probably because command played such a pivotal role in those wars for a couple of reasons. First, technology was essentially the same on both sides for those wars; indeed, both sides of each war can be viewed as using the identical equipment and identical tactics (with some minor variations). So, both sides being roughly equal, the side with more effective leadership is probably going to win. Second, the armies and leadership of these musket-wielding times were predominantly amateurs. The American generals in the Revolutionary War often had no significant military experience or expertise (Washington had only his experience as a young militia officer during the French and Indian War when he was made commander of the Continental Army, and lots of other American generals had much less experience.) The same could be said of the other wars including the CW where generals experienced the learning curve of command on the battlefield itself. And in all these wars there were periods of where weak leadership had to be identified and weeded out (e.g. Lincoln’s troubles with the various commanders of the Army of the Potomac). But 20th century American wars were led by professional officers whose job it was to be generals. The military leadership that won the war did not need to learn on the job or work their way up through the ranks.

    During the American wars of the 20th century, technology and mass production ruled the fate of armies, not generals. Certainly leadership played a significant role, obviously, but the Imperial Japanese Navy didn’t lose battles in 1943 and 1944 because they were out-generalled, er, out-admiraled by the United States Navy. They were defeated because the US had a tremendous advantage in numbers and technology. And if you’ve got great generals, it doesn’t matter if your enemy has the A-Bomb and you don’t.

    But nevertheless there’s lots of focus on generals during World War Two. For example, the North African campaign of 1940-42 is often seen a battle of generals with Rommel playing the biggest role.

    So, I don’t see an emphasis on generals as being unique to the Civil War, but the emphasis on individual leaders being more a result of pre-20th century warfare.

    Nevertheless, we could also point to the tangled personal histories of the generals themselves; it is difficult to talk about men fighting each other when they had gone to school with each other and so forth. And the fact each general had to consciously chose to fight for one side or the other leads us to ask questions about who these men were and why they did what they did. Nobody asks why Patton fought for the US rather than Japan or why Zhukov chose to fight for the Soviet Union rather than the US.

    Wow. That was a lot longer than I thought it would be. Sorry.

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  6. Adam Badeau

    “Why Do Military Leaders Dominate the Civil War Classroom?”

    First, they don’t. The historical character nearly always dominating Civil War history is Lincoln. That should be *obvious* to anyone that is not pursuing a bogus agenda.

    Second, military leaders naturally figure prominently in any discussion of a war, as opposed to the political consequences of a war, because war means fighting. Again this should be *obvious.*

    Third, politically correct thought police – especially among academia – censor most efforts to write biographies or books about Confederate civilian leaders, unless they conform to false Yankees-are-saints / Confederates-are-devils agenda. Without such information there can be little discussion of political implications except of the one-sided propaganda popular at this website which is tiresome from the beginning for objective readers.

    For example, there is almost nothing about the Confederate Congress as compared to the Federal one. Similarly books on Lincoln far outnumber those on Davis. Likewise there is almost nothing recent about the Confederate cabinet. The best, by Hendricks, dates from the 1930s. There is no “Team of Rivals,” or “Freedom”, or anything like Vidal’s “Lincoln.”

    James McPherson who is nearly 80 years old and spent his whole adult life advancing a spurious yankees-are-morally-superior dogma has only recently tackled a Jeff Davis bio. Yet even he said working on the book made him more sympathetic to the character than he was previously.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Not sure where to start.

      Second, military leaders naturally figure prominently in any discussion of a war, as opposed to the political consequences of a war, because war means fighting. Again this should be *obvious.*

      The student made a pretty good point referencing the extent to which we delve into military leaders compared to other wars. Show me a class that goes as much into the lives of Patton and MacArthur as we do Lee and Jackson.

      Third, politically correct thought police – especially among academia – censor most efforts to write biographies or books about Confederate civilian leaders, unless they conform to false Yankees-are-saints / Confederates-are-devils agenda.

      You can’t be serious. There are scores of books on the Confederate Congress. Start with William C. Davis and Emory Thomas. When you get through those I will suggest 50 more. Lincoln dominates most fields of history re: interest and books. You can criticize this site all you want, but don’t expect to be taken seriously when you make points such as these. Good day.

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      1. adam Badeau

        It is comical that you think the titles written by William C. Davis and Emory Thomas are focused on actions of the Confederate cabinet and Congress *during the entire war* to the extent that “Team of Rivals”, “Freedom,” and Vidal’s “Lincoln” are focused on those at the North.

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  7. Dudley Bokoski

    When I was in school (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) I’m sure we did study battles and leaders more than they are today. But there was also sufficient time for discussion of the context of the war. In contrast today there is less time devoted to history and the time is used more to establish the causes of the war, the impact on society, and where it fits within historical development. And there certainly is nothing wrong with that.

    I don’t think you can discuss how the war is taught without acknowledging that the time available for history in schools is very limited, especially in comparison with the past. There is a much greater emphasis today on math and science and the time had to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, that somewhere is history and literature.

    I would never apologize for being interested in battles and leaders on a personal level. History is a collection of stories and the stories of the war are fascinating reading. What a remarkable cast of characters and events. And, unless you are just thick as a brick, you can’t be exposed to the traditional study of Civil War history without learning about what lead up to the war, how society has developed, the lives of civilians, and how the war influenced the development of our modern society. It isn’t an either/or, where you can only be interested in one approach to studying the war. It would be awfully hard to think of any time spent studying history as time wasted no matter what part of it strikes your interest.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think this student is simply pointing out the extent to which certain personalities dominate our classrooms compared to other wars.

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  8. Rob Baker

    A response to this really warrants a post of its own. In short, I’d say this:

    Christian Patterson goes to a private school, which means what was touched on his class was mostly at the teacher’s discretion. The question should be, “Why did his teacher….” In comparison, public school teachers adapt the standards to their lesson plans. Perhaps the question there is, “why are the standards….”

    Let’s not forget that today teachers are a part of a vicious cycle of numerous contingencies. In regards to history, their grade school teachers and/or parents are primary narrators in said teacher’s historical understanding. Which is pretty ‘old school?’ This is just one guess that I have not seen posted by anyone else.

    One question though, “Why not?” What is wrong with focusing on leaders, generals and battle? It is really an aspect of appeal. Some of my students liked big concepts such as race, death, etc. Others enjoyed military history and the bigger than life figures like “Stonewall”, Lee, Grant, Sherman and Jackson. Still, some students enjoyed the kinetic lessons in the Civil War lab where the handled Civil War related items.

    I feel like the big Civil War leaders are immensely important as well. Lincoln redefines the vague language of the Constitution. Sherman demonstrates ‘Total War’ in its modern form which will carry over into WWI & WWII. Grant establishes a military policy that America will use in wars to come. Lee and Jackson are still used in military academies for excellent examples of battlefield tactics and unorthodox thinking. Those are just a couple of examples. I don’t believe you are dismissing their importance but are merely posing the question. It is an interesting question though.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      One question though, “Why not?” What is wrong with focusing on leaders, generals and battle? It is really an aspect of appeal. Some of my students liked big concepts such as race, death, etc. Others enjoyed military history and the bigger than life figures like “Stonewall”, Lee, Grant, Sherman and Jackson. Still, some students enjoyed the kinetic lessons in the Civil War lab where the handled Civil War related items.

      Nothing in my post implies that I believe there is something wrong. Military leaders are incredibly important. I don’t see much of a difference on this account between private and public school teachers. We find Civil War military leaders much more interesting (personally and professionally) compared with other wars.

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      1. Rob Baker

        Nothing in my post implies that I believe there is something wrong. Military leaders are incredibly important.

        I didn’t imply that you think that, it was merely a general question. That’s why I wrote below that “I don’t believe you are dismissing their importance but are merely posing the question.”

        I don’t see much of a difference on this account between private and public school teachers. We find Civil War military leaders much more interesting (personally and professionally) compared with other wars.

        Without comparable date, I find it hard to believe that there is not much difference on this account between the two. For example, you’ve said above that you tend not to focus on such things. You work in the private sector. However, I work in the public sector, here is what I am required to teach.

        Georgia Public Standards:
        SSUSH9 The student will identify key events, issues, and individuals relating to the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War.

        a. Explain the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the failure of popular sovereignty, Dred Scott case, and John Brown’s Raid.
        b. Describe President Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the Union as seen in his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg speech and in his use of emergency powers, such as his decision to suspend habeas corpus.
        c. Describe the roles of Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, William T. Sherman, and Jefferson Davis.
        d. Explain the importance of Fort Sumter, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the Battle for Atlanta and the impact of geography on these battles.
        e. Describe the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
        f. Explain the importance of the growing economic disparity between the North and the South through an examination of population, functioning railroads, and industrial output.
        (my emphasis)

        I should note that even on things that do not specifically list names (Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc.), the students will still be tested on big names.

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  9. adam Badeau

    According to Paul Tetreault who is a former director of the Ford’s Theater museum there have been more books written about Lincoln than anyone else except Jesus Christ. He estimates over 15,000.

    Anyone who proclaims that the war’s military leaders are better remembered than Lincoln either (1) has a blind spot bigger that Jupiter, or (2) is dedicated to a bogus agenda. In either case, they are not worth a grown man’s time.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I acknowledge that Lincoln is one of the most popular subjects in all of history, but that is why any comparison with other Civil War figures is uninteresting. I don’t get the sense that you are familiar with the relevant historiography. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    2. Christopher Shelley

      Nobody here said anything about military leaders being better remembered than Lincoln. Only a confirmed Lincolnloather could have inferred that.

      Not only does it appear that you don’t understand the historiography of the period, but you don’t seem to understand what historians do. We don’t approach a topic with an “agenda” and then cherrypick facts that confirm that agenda. We READ THE MATERIAL–the primary sources of the period to figure out, as best we can, what the facts are. Then, we develop an interpretation that takes the facts into account and makes the most sense. If we don’t like the result, tough–we don’t get to choose our own Lincoln. Historians that begin with an agenda get laughed at.

      And the reason more words have been spent on Lincoln than any other figure in American history is that A) he was a genius; B) he was a complex figure who, in the right place at the right time, saved the Union, while (against his own will) helped to create a Union worth saving; and C) was a great writer who’s ideas and words resonate deeply with most Americans, then and now. I highly recommend that, after you finish Kevin’s reading suggestions, you pick up a copy of Lincoln’s collected works and read them. But I warn you, if you read them with your own agenda projected ahead of you, it won’t matter what you read.

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  10. Ken Noe

    There’s a major difference between Lincoln being better remembered generally and better remembered specifically in a modern high school classroom. The young man’s comment is about the latter. I don’t know if it’s true, but any sensible answer will require asking students and teachers.

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  11. Buck Buchanan

    Here is a possible reason to my simple mind.

    The number of books written by participants of the war is legion. With rare exception, Service in the war was a requirement for successful run for public office for decades following the war. The war itself was the largest single event which occurred in the US for the entire 19th Century. All of this impacted the generations of historians who followed.

    The ideas of masses of men moving over the landscape with flags flying for a cause seem to be of greater interest than telling the story of the grinding boredom, exhaustion and run-ins with disease…which was the real day in and day out story of the war. 4 color maps with sweeping arrows could show battles simply in textbooks.

    All of this together made the telling of the story of the ACW in school to be about battles. And since teachers were not going to teach about the 43rd New York, 19th Mississippi, 3rd Kansas or 2d Florida they would concentrate on the generals. That allowed the story of the battles to be the story of the generals.

    I just wish they would study better generals. Jackson was very good in the Valley (against the 3rd string) was abysmal during the 7 Days, was decent at Cedar Mountain, and was adequate at Antietam and Fredericksburg. He was very good at Chancellorsville but his best work there was he died so his legend could be secured. Lee’s luster has become more and more tarnished as historians review his actions at the 7 Days, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Overland.
    But since the entire Confederacy was made up of Virginians and the Texas Brigade it all makes sense!

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